13 October 2021

Unholy doings on hallowed ground

DecemberDecember by Phil Rickman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four members of a rock band called "The Philosophers Stone" split up after a recording session on a December night at Ystrad Duu Abbey in South Wales. It happened to be the night that John Lennon was killed, and one member of the band felt that he was experiencing the event as it was happening. The others all experienced bad things too, so they destroyed the tapes and left without completing the album they were recording.

Fourteen years later a producer tries to persuade them to get back together to finish the uncompleted album. but they have heard that bad things had happened there before, and seemed to happen at seven-year intervals, so they are reluctant to do so, unless they can break the jinx on the abbey, whose history seems to have been less holy than they had thought.

This book is vintage Phil Rickman, first published in 1994 when he was still writing horror, before he started fancying himself as a writer of whodunits, so I was glad to have found it in a second-hand bookshop, and find it was one that I hadn't read -- I've found new books by Phil Rickman in the past and then discovered that they are ones I've already read, but have been sneakily reissued by the publishers under a different title. I liked this one a lot better than some of his more recent books which are more like detective stories. In this one there are dead bodies and the police do investigate, but by the time all the bodies are counted, everyone knows who did it. It's not that I don't like whodunits. I do, and quite often read them. But there are lots of better whodunit writers out there than Phil Rickman; there are not nearly as many good horror writers.

As with most horror books there are also some pretty nasty things that happen. Why in a ruined abbey? Well, it seems that there were unholy goings on there in the past, including the ultimate betrayal. And while reading it I kept thinking of something told me many years ago by Father Ephraim of the Simonos Petros Monastery on the Holy Mountain. He said that more people go to hell from monasteries than anywhere else. It's all too easy for a monk to lose his (or her) nipsis (watchfulness).

There are some flaws. One of them was that he rapidly switches viewpoint characters without indicating which character it is, so I often found I would start reading a section, and by the third paragraph real ised which character it was, and had to go back and re-read from the beginning of the section to place the scene in my mind. That gets mildly annoying after a while.

He also included too many cliffhangers --something bad happens to one character, and just at the critical point he switches to another, and by the time you get back to the scene you find that something else had happened, and often to a different character. This is OK the first couple of times, but when it is overdone it gets tiresome, and Phil Rickman doesn't seem to know when to stop.

But aside from those rather minor niggles it was an enjoyable read.

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02 October 2021

Midnight's children

Midnight's ChildrenMidnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fictional autobiography of a child born at the moment India became independent in 1947.

And as the child grows up, he feels that the ups and downs of his own life mirror the fortunes of the country. Quite a long time ago I read a novel, A bend in the Ganges, set in the time of India's independence, and from that I knew it was beset by violence. That novel, like this one, followed the history of a family, and how the family was affected by the historical events. But Midnight's Children is no straightforward historical novel. It is surreal. Or perhaps paranormal. Or perhaps magic realism. It aims to show not the mere historical events, but the spiritual significance of them.

And so the children who were born at or immediately after midnight on 15 August 1947 are able to communicate with each other telepathically, and have abilities that science fiction writers of the 1950s used to indicate conventionally with the abbreviation PSI.

It is quite a dense and complex book, and I thought that, like some long and complex Russian novels, it needed a list of Dramatis Personae that one could refer to. There are so many characters that when one finds a reference to something that happened to one of them 150 pages earlier, one needs to reread the earlier incident to remember what happened and who was involved. But that means it is not the kind of book to read once and throw away. There ware things that will become clearer on a second or third, or even a seventh or eighth reading.

But now I have to take it back to the library. A few years ago I tried to read The Satanic Verses by the same author, and couldn't finish it. I found it too boring and confusing. If iot was satire, it was satirising things beyond my experience, which I couldn't connect to. But Midnight's Children reminded me of a song from 50 years ago:

Yesterday's dream didn't quite come true
We fought for our freedom and what did it do?
Now no one can see where they stand. 

And fifty years ago, when we sang that song, freedom was still tomorrow's dream, but I knew, back then, that when it came and faded into the past as yesterday's dream, we would know that it didn't quite come true. 

Twenty-five years ago I visited Kenya, which had been independent for just over 30 years, as India was at the end of Salman Rushdie's book. Several Kenyans asked me about South Africa, which had then enjoyed about a year of its brand-new democracy, which we had been all excited about, but the Kenyans showed no interest in that. Their questions showed that what interested them most about South Africa was the Mandela divorce, and who would get the money. They could not conceive of a politician who was not in it purely for the money. And 25 years later we have reached the same point in South Africa. And Salman Rushdie shows the spiritual reality of that, as it played out in India.

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26 September 2021

The Lathe of Heaven and the Mandela Effect

The Lathe of HeavenThe Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book 35 years ago, and could not remember much of it, so when I saw a GoodReads friend was rereading it, I decided to reread it too, and compare our reviews when done.

George Orr, a draughtsman in Portland, Oregon, has disturbing dreams which he believes change reality. In an effort to stop dreaming he takes drugs, which get him into trouble with the police. Have psychiatric treatment or go to jail is the choice he is offered. The psychiatrist, Dr Brian Haber, after ascertaining that George Orr is not deluded, and his dreams really do change reality, tries to use them to change the world and improve it by suggesting to George Orr what he should dream about.

Instead of being freed from his dreams, George Orr finds that he is being manipulated by Dr Haber, and with each dream, and each change of the world and its history that comes about, Dr Haber becomes more powerful and influential, until Portland becomes the capital of the world, with Brian Haber controlling much of it from his office. With each change of the world, Haber claims the credit for any improvements, but blames Orr for any defects, saying that Orr had failed to carry out his instructions in hypnotic suggestions before dreaming.

In each changed state, some people who were alive in one of the former states end up dead, or it is as if they had never been born. Only Orr. Haber, and a lawyer Orr consults (and falls in love with) realise what is happening. But their relationship is not smooth. A lunch appointment made in one world is broken in the next, as the restaurant is no longer there.

Though it is a short book, only 156 pages in the edition I read, I found it rather slow-paced in places, and thought that perhaps it would have been better as a short story. I would have given it three stars, and probably would have taken a lot longer reading it, a chapter a day at bedtime, but for some strange incidents that made me feel as though I were in a similar story, and that it wasn't just happening in a book. 

The first time I read it was in rather weird circumstances too. I bought it to read on a flight from Singapore to Johannesburg, but the journey entailed waiting nearly 24 hours for a connecting flight in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was jetlagged and bombed out and had the weird feeling of being in three time zones at once. I wrote in my diary at the time:

I took a taxi and arrived at the Orient Pearl Hotel at Katunayake at 3:00 am. It would have been 6:30 in Singapore. I went to bed, though it was a strange time to do so, and woke up at 6:30 am. It was hard to think that it was 9:00 am in Singapore and 3:00 am at home, and I seemed to be in three times at once. I read one of the books I had bought, The lathe of heaven by Ursula le Guin, which added to the weirdness. It is a kind of Buddhist book, about a guy whose dreams come true, and so every time he dreams, he changes the world, and only he can remember what the world was like before. And reading a Buddhist book in a Buddhist country in a room with drawn curtains while it is daylight outside is somewhat strange, to say the least, like the limbo of the wood between the worlds in The magician's nephew. One doesn't know which one is real.

On my second reading, the circumstances were even weirder. As I mentioned in the post before this one, on  The Origin and Meaning of Heritage Day, someone on Facebook said that they thought it was previously known as "Shaka's Day", and I said no, as I remember it, it was previously known as Settler's Day. 

I wanted to cite something to show that it was so, but when I did a web search the references said it was Shaka Day. So either my memory was faulty, or, as in The lathe of heaven, the world had changed, and I was the only one who remembered what it was like before the change.

But in the book. originally written in 1971, though the story is set in the period 1998-2002, the protagonist comes to terms with what is happening to himself and the world by means of the Beatles song, I get by with a little help from my friends. So I appealed for a little help from my friends. Could they remember a public holiday called Settlers Day? Very few responded, but those who did seemed to have memories as vague as mine. 

So perhaps someone really is dreaming this world. and a few of us have vague memories of the previous dream. Or perhaps it is related to a similar phenomenon called the Mandela Effect, in which many people recall reading newspaper reports that President Nelson Mandela had died in prison in the 1980s. 

One other observation -- in science-fiction books published a long time ago, and envisaging the world of the future, it is interesting to see what the authors foresee in the way of developments of science and technology, and society, culture and politics. In this book, first published 50 years ago, several different possible future worlds are presented, according to the different dreams of George Orr. In each one, for example, Portland has a different public transport system, different nations are at war or at peace, and space aliens have or have not visited earth. But one thing is constant -- Mount St Helen's did not erupt. 

But it did erupt in 1980, didn't it? Surely I'm not the only one who remembers reading about that?

25 September 2021

The origin and meaning of Heritage Day

The 24th of  September  is a public holiday in South Africa, called Heritage Day, and I've been seeing some weird stuff on social media about how it originated and what it means. 

One person thought it was originally called Shaka Day, and then became Heritage Day. Several people commented, suggesting other origins, but none hit on the real one -- it was previously called Settlers Day. 

Someone else posted a poll on Twitter on "What word(s) best describe what you mean by ‘heritage’?"

  • 47,5% said "My richly diverse origins"
  • 31.9% said "My unique culture"
  • 16.5% said "Shared African values"
  • 4.1% said "Race/ethnicity"

One could argue that the first two are roughly the same -- my unique culture is, after all, the result of my richly diverse origins, which are unique to me, and what make my culture unique. 

We spent most of Heritage Day this year traipsing around to three different cemeteries to unveil the gravestones of four different members of one of our church families, which seemed an appropriate thing to do on Heritage Day. And when my wife and I were both working we often spent Heritage Day on doing family history. 

But, as I recall, before 1994 it was called Settlers Day, and had its origin in the republican referendum of 1960 and its aftermath. Back in 1960 a referendum held on whether South Africa should become a republic, and a majority of white voters agreed that it should (1960 was also the year in which the last black voters in South Africa lost their right to vote). So on the 31st May 1961 Queen Elizabeth ceased to be the head of state and was replaced by President Charles Robberts Swart, and the white supremacist Republic of South Africa came into being.

The Boere, having got their long-desired Republic at last, were feeling magnanimous to the Engelse, and since the Boere had three public holidays in the year -- Van Riebeeck's Day (6 April), Kruger Day (10 October) and the Day of the Vow (16 December) decided to give the Engelse one as well -- Ag Shame, they had lost their Queen. So they settled on Settlers Day, and I think it was first celebrated to mark the inauguration of the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown (now known  as Makhando).

President C.R. Swart, wearing a top hat and orange white and blue sash, arrived in state to officially open the monument, but I heard that Rhodes University students got in first, procured an open car, and a student dressed in top coat and sash drove along the presidential route taking the salute from all the military brass who lined it. Students also celebrated the inauguration  of the monument with the Verwoerd March, which is better seen than described. The marchers line up in two columns, and the sergeant-major barks the commands:

  • Linker voet soos 'n kreupel been
  • Linker hand soos ;n Dracula
  • Bors soos ;n tortel-duif
  • Verwooooooerd march
  • Juk! Skei! Juk! Skei! Juk! Skei!

After South Africa became a democratic non-racial republic in 1994, such sectional ethnic commemorations were felt to be inappropriate, and Settlers Day became Heritage Day, when everyone could commemorate their heritage, whatever it happened to be. There was also a suggestion from the Inkatha Freedom Party that Settlers Day should become Shaka Day, but that was rejected in favour of something more inclusive.. 

That is what I recollect, as written oral history. It is what I can recall before checking any written sources. 

Of course you can do a web search to find the "real" story, though it is probably less colourful, but I just wonder if anyone else has recollections similar to mine, especially anyone who was a student at Rhodes University in 1960/61.

But you if you do a web search can see

  1. the official story here
  2. an urban legend origin story here
  3. and a Wikipedia version of the urban legend here

And my conclusion is, I think my oral history is more accurate.  

08 September 2021

The Deeping Secrets

The Deeping Secrets (Paradise Barn, #2)

The Deeping Secrets by Victor Watson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Five children on a war-time spy hunt.

Serendipity is pulling a book at random off the library shelf and finding that it is a really enjoyable read -- "unputdownable", as the hack reviewers like to say to get their reviews quoted in the blurb. In this case, I saw the word "Deeping" in the title, wondered what it was about, read the blurb, and then found it hard to put down until I had finished the book.

It seems that when you mention stories of kids having adventures what comes to most people's minds is the Famous Five by Enid Blyton. Well this one could not be the Infamous Five, but possibly the Obscure Five. Five kids start their school holidays in the middle of a wartime spy scare, and exciting adventures follow.

It actually made me think less of the Famous Five (which I didn't read much as a kid anyway) than of the "William" books of Richmal Crompton. Those were a series of short stories with the same characters rather than novels, but they did take place in war time, and William did occasionally take part in spy hunts, though William's chief suspect would usually turn out to be quite innocent in a case of mistaken identity.

In The Deeping Secrets five children, Molly, Abigail, Joe, Edward and Adam, are rather fed up with the war, which spoils their school holidays with blackout regulations, rationing and the like, but then are faced with a spy and would-be saboteur.

I read the "William" books when i was about 10, and found myself almost wishing that it could be war time -- with all the excitement in life caused by suspected spies and fifth-columnists and quislings. And I learnt such terms from those books. But when I tried, nostalgically, to re-read the "William" books as an adult, I was impressed with two things: (1) the vocabulary was pretty sophisticated for children the same age as the child characters in the books, and (2), the child characters in the books were seen through adult eyes -- they did the things that adults find amusing when kids do them, and so they were condescending in the bad sense, laughing at the things that children did rather than at the things that children find amusing.

The Deeping Secrets does not have these faults. It really is a children's book, written from the point of view of children. And in style, characters and plot it is way ahead of the Famous Five books, whose fame, it seems to me, is quite undeserved. The point of these comparisons is that the fame of some well-known children's adventure stories is largely undeserved, and this one is one of those that deserves to be better known.

Another thing that I found interesting about the book was that it is set in the year that I was born, and the denouement came two days before I was born, on Good Friday 1941. And that got me wondering about the genre of historical novels. At what point does a novel become historical?  I've written children's books that are set in a period 23 years later, in 1964 (you can see them in the side-bar on the right), which would make them ancient history to any children who read them today, but for me is within living memory. So could one define a historical novel as something written about a period before the author was born, or before anyone now living was born, or as something else?

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07 September 2021

The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa, by Denis Goldberg

The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South AfricaThe Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa by Denis Goldberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very readable autobiography of a South African political activist.

Denis Goldberg was born and grew up in Cape Town. His parents were communists, and imparted to their children a desire for social justice. He went to university and studied engineering, and became a civil engineer. In the 1950s he joined the Congress of Democrats which was part of the Congress Alliance of organisations opposed to apartheid, with separate organisations for black, white, coloured and Indian South Africans. The Communist Party had been non-racial, but when the National Party came to power in 1948 one of their first acts was to ban the Communist Party of South Africa, which then went underground as the South African Communist Party.

The Congress Alliance sponsored the Congress of the People in 1955, which in turn adopted the Freedom Charter, which put forward the vision of a democratic non-racial South Africa. But those the National Party government regarded as the organisers were arrested and charged with treason, though after four years they were all acquitted.

In 1960 all the parties in the Congress Alliance were banned and they too went underground, and decided that, since peaceful protest no longer seemed a workable political activity, they should move to armed struggle. Denis Goldberg was among those arrested and tried in the Rivonia Trial of 1962, and was sentenced to life imprisonment, though he was released after 22 years. He describes the events leading up to his arrest, the trial, and his time in prison.

After he was released he went overseas and joined his wife Esme in the UK, where he worked to publicise the African National Congress (ANC) and its cause in Britain, Europe and elsewhere. After the ANC was unbanned in 1990 he worked to gain support for community development projects in South Africa. When his wife Esme died he married again and returned to South Africa, where he used his engineering training to advise successive ministers of Water Affairs and Forestry.

The parts of the book describing his personal and family life and his time in prison are very clear and readable, but his descriptions of the political situation and political activities are less so. These parts of the book could be confusing to readers who do not have prior knowledge of the political history of the times. In some places, when describing the political scene of the 1950s, he mentions the Non-European Unity Movement, but seems to assume that his readers will know that it was, what its policies were, and how it differed from the Congress movement.

In other parts, he gives the impression that he is writing an apology to defend himself from criticisms by his colleagues in the ANC. This is no doubt because he was criticised in some quarters, but exactly for what is only hinted at and not stated explicitly. In these parts of the story one gets the impression that he is writing for his colleagues to defend his own actions, and not for the general reader.

I do not agree with all his views, and there were some attitudes that seemed alien to me. As a pacifist, I was never too taken with the idea of the armed struggle and the use of violence, though I recognise that not everyone is a pacifist and most people are unlikely to be. And as a liberal I felt a bit uncomfortable with the top-down authoritarian structure. Of course that was partly because they saw themselves as an army, and so developed along military lines with a top-down command structure. Nevertheless, the need for getting approval for everything from the next level of command in the rather rigid hierarchy seemed strange to me, especially when the movement was underground. I would have expected more flexibility, and expecting members to do things on their own initiative rather than passing everything up the command chain and waiting for permission to come back down.

It would make more sense to me to ensure that people are familiar with the general principles and policies of the organisation, and apply them in ways that are possible in particular circumstances of time and place. But Goldberg writes in such a way as to give the impression that he is trying hard to preclude or counter accusations that he was acting on his own initiative.

Later, however, when the ANC was in power, he accuses civil servants of being dull and unimaginative and obstructive of changes that would better the life of the people. I think his criticisms are justified, but it might be the authoritarian structure of the ANC that has caused it.

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05 September 2021

King Arthur, Arthurian literature and the Holy Grail

King Arthur In Legend And History

King Arthur In Legend And History by Richard Barber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book on Arthurian literature I've read in the last month, and since I read them so close together, I can't help comparing them. The first one was King Arthur: the True Story, and you can see my review here.

This book is the earlier one (first published in 1961) and in my opinion the better one, though it gets a lower rating on GoodReads, perhaps because of the limitations of the 5-star rating system. In a 10-star system I would give King Arthur in Legend and History 7 stars, and King Arthur: the True Story only 6.

The books start at opposite ends of the story, and work in different directions.

King Arthur in Legend and History starts with what is known of the historical Arthur, and then follows the development of the legend in literature. King Arthur: the True Story starts with the developed legend, and works back towards the history. That is because its main purpose is to present its candidate for the true historical Arthur, and so, apart from a general survey of the literature at the beginning, its main argument is directed to that end.

Richard Barber, on the other hand, shows how scanty historical sources led to the growth of a rich literary legend. On the whole, I liked his book and his approach better. He also deals much more thoroughly with the later Arthurian literature, which is of little interest to anyone looking for clues to the historical Arthur. He also gives quite a bit of space to one of my favourite authors, Charles Williams, though he concentrates on his poetry, and not on his prose narratives.

Barber compares most of the major Arthurian writers, and compares the way in which they presented the stories and the characters, and also how people in different periods tended to present them differently.

I'm almost more interested in the history of the literary treatment of the legend than I am in the legend itself. For one thing, King Arthur himself seems to play very little part in the stories. Other than at the beginning, where he becomes king, and the end, with his rather enigmatic end, he seems to do little except announce that he will fast until one of his knights has an adventure and comes back to tell him about it. And the rest is the story of the adventure of this or that knight -- adventures that often seem to involve murder or adultery or both. 

One of the things I find most interesting, though, is the story of the Holy Grail, or Graal. This was introduced to the Arthurian story by Crétiene de Troyes about 1190, though he does not describe it in detail. Within ten to fifteen years (about 1200-1210) Robert de Boron had expanded this narrative, and the Graal had become the cup used by Christ at the last supper. brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea and taken to Avalon by Bron the Rich Fisher.


I don't think that it is mere coincidence that this was the very period in which the word "transubstantiation" was introduced into Western theology to explain the transformation of the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. It was in 1215 that the Lateran Council declared that the doctrine of Transubstantiation was essential to the faith. For more details on this see Eucharistic theology and witchcraft.

Though Barber discusses Charles Williams's  Arthurian poetry, he does not mention his novel on the Graal, War in Heaven, which also introduces the figure of Prester John. It is a kind of 20th-century version of a Grail Quest, with the Duke of North Ridings playing the part of a questing knight, with his Roman Catholic Eucharistic theology, and the Anglican Archdeacon of Fardles having a somewhat more mystically real eucharistic theology. 

Now perhaps there is somewhere, mouldering on a forgotten shelf  in some university library, someone's doctoral thesis on the parallels between the development of Western Eucharistic Theology in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and the development in the legend of the Grail in Arthurian literature during the same period, and if so, I'd like to read it. But if there isn't one, I would love to see someone working on one, and someone suggesting that to potential students as a possible topic.

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04 September 2021

Zionist origins in South Africa

The Daily Maverick recently published an interesting article about Wakkerstroom, the birthplace of Zionist Christianity in South Africa -- if you are not sure about the difference between Zionist Christianity and Christian Zionism, see here.

The Daily Maverick article, with the title Letter from Mpumalanga: Listening to history’s whispers by the river of enlightenment, has some interesting pictures of the places where Zionist Christianity started in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. It has since split into numerous different denominations, the largest of which, the Zion Christian Church, is the biggest single denomination in the country.

Around 1900, a Dutch Reformed missionary living in Wakkerstroom, Pieter Le Roux, became interested in the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois. Zion was a utopian community dedicated to two chief propositions, both radical in their time: one, that doctors were unnecessary because Jesus could heal all ailments; and two, that all races were equal in the eyes of God.

Both propositions resonated with Le Roux, who spoke fluent Zulu and seems to have had unusually egalitarian ease with black Africans in that era. Le Roux tried to resign from the Dutch Reformed church, but they asked him to delay his departure until after the Anglo-Boer war.

The article is misleading in some respects -- first, while the church in Wakkerstroom was the first Zionist church in South Africa, it was not the first African independent church (AIC). There were several earlier AICs, such as the Ethiopian Church which started in Marabastad, Pretoria, about ten years earlier, and a movement started by Nehmiah Tile even earlier than that in the Eastern Cape. Secondly, the early history of Zionism has been fairly well documented in numerous books, including some by my erstwhile colleague Allan Anderson -- see, for example: Zion and Pentecost

zionist baptism

 What is significant in this article, though, is the description of the physical sites of early Zionist history, which should surely be declared historical monuments, and the Daily Maverick article is illustrated with some interesting photos of these.

There is also something that puzzles me, and I hope someone familiar with the sources of early Zionist history will be able to enlighten me. This article, and most of the books I have read on the topic, say that the first Zionists were baptised in the river that runs through Wakkerstroom -- the eponymous wakker stroom (wakeful or lively stream). But some mention the Slang River, which is over the mountains, and indeed, in those early days over the border in a different country, the then Natal Colony. The photo in the article clearly shows the same bridge in Wakkerstroom as appears in the old photo, So I wonder about the source of the mention of the Slang River, as something in the early history of Zionism that needs to be clarified. Did Le Roux and his flock flee across the mountains to Natal at some point -- and if so when, and for what reason? I am curious, partly because I was at one time quite familiar with Groenvlei in the Slang River valley and I used to visit the Anglican church there once a month for services, but that's another story, which you can read about here, if you are curious.

Anyway, I was pleased to see this article, and to see that some are beginning to take an interest in preserving the history of one of the most significant movements in South African Church history, and from which the largest group of Christians in South Africa spring. 

21 August 2021

King Arthur: the True Story

King Arthur: The True Story

King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

King Arthur is a well-known figure in European romantic literature, but the historical character he is based on is vague and elusive. The authors of this book believe they have identified him as Owain Ddanngwyn, ruler of Powys in west-central Britain from about AD 488-520. "Arthur", they say, was not his actual name, but an epithet or nom de guerre meaning "The Bear", being a combination of the Brythonic "arth" and the Latin "ursus", both of which mean "bear".

I am in no position to evaluate the accuracy of their claims, because I am not sufficiently versed in the history of that period, which many historians have referred to as "the Dark Ages" because so little written history has survived from then, and so historians of the period are left feeling their way in the dark. It is like trying, in 2021, to find the biography of a ruler in southern Africa around 1390. There are no contemporary written sources, so that for us is the southern African "Dark Ages". 

I came to read this book in a strange way. I went to the library to renew some books I hadn't finished reading, and saw this one lying on a table. Someone had taken it off the shelf, decided not to take it out, and left it lying there for a librarian to reshelve. I wasn't looking for it, nor would I probably have found it if I had been, but it just appeared in front of me, as if it were saying "Read Me".

What I can say of the book by way of evaluation is that it starts off with a good summary of the Arthurian literature, and how the legends of Arthur were popularised (and in many instances created) in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth and subsequent writers. So I found the first few chapters very good as an account of how the Arthurian legend developed, and its early sources.

The further one goes into the book, however the more tenuous and speculative the story becomes, and the less convincing becomes the sub-title, "The True Story". The authors don't pretend otherwise. Their prose in the later chapters is extremely conditional, "if x happened, then y could have followed", "It is conceivable that...".

Much of the knowledge of the period comes from archaeology, which can tell us something of what life was like in a particular period, and what kind of people lived where, but it tells us very little of the actual events that led to those conditions. Pottery fragments can tell us whether the people who lived in a place were Angles or Saxons or British, but does not tell us their names, and whether they were ruled or led by someone called Arthur.

I also have to ask myself why I should be interested in Arthur or Arthurian literature. Most of the literature was written 600 years later, and tells us more about that period than about the time when Arthur lived, if he ever did live. One of the things that interests me about it is the intersection of history, myth, legend and theology, some aspects of which I have dealt with in an earlier blog post -- see South African Camelot.

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20 August 2021

Much Ado about Vaccination

I never got vaccinated as a kid, because my father was some kind of health nut, and was a conscientious objector to vaccination. He had a special certificate of exemption for me, which had to be shown whenever I enrolled at a government school, because in order to attend, one had to show that one had been vaccinated or specially exempted. 

So when I went to school all the other kids had visible "vaccination marks" on their arms, but I didn't.

My father never explained his objections to vaccination to me. He was an organic chemist, and sometimes talked quite a lot about vitamins and things like that.He was an atheist, and while my mother sometimes read me Bible stories and nursery rhymes and fairy stories at bed-time, my father would read me stories from his biology textbooks -- about sea urchins and liver flukes and monads and such, and from the illustrations they were just as monstrous as any dragons, giants, ogres and the like. 

Looking back, and trying to interpret with hindsight, I think my father believed that boosting the immune system with vitamins was more effective than vaccination. Back in those days the compulsory vaccinations were only for smallpox, and infection with several common diseases of early childhood was supposed to confer immunity, and I think my father tried to get me infected. or at least hoped I would be. I did get chicken pox, and had to stay away from school with all of six spots. I think I got whooping cough, and definitely had pneumonia and amoebic dysentery before the age of 7. The pneumonia required penicillin injections every four hours day and  night, and I developed a deep hatred of them at the age of 4. Penicillin was a new drug in those days, but my father seemed to have no objections at all to that.  Again, I never discovered why he objected to some kinds of medicine but not to others. The amoebic dysentery seemed to cause doctors to get into a tizz when I was grown up and put it on applications for employment. I had hardly been aware of being sick, and it entailed interesting visits to the doctor and examining bugs under microscopes, which was quite interesting to a 5-year-old. 

I got measles when I was 11 and at boarding school, and that was the worst headache I have ever had in my life. The headache went after the first couple of days and the main suffering for the next fortnight I had to spend in the school infirmary was boredom -- no reading allowed. Several other kids got measles after me, so we spent days making every conceivable design of paper aeroplanes. But if a vaccination could have prevented that headache, I would have gone for it. 

A couple of years later there was a polio epidemic, and the beginning of the school term was delayed for a week to try to prevent it from spreading. Later that same year a vaccine for polio was discovered. Too late for our generation, but our kids had it.  

But eventually the vaccination thing caught up with me. The government decreed that from 1 July 1964 one would require passports and vaccination certificates to go to Lesotho. I had a passport, but no vaccination certificate, so I went and got vaccinated at the age of 23. I wondered what my father would think of that, but as I was over 21 and had in any case not seen him for several years, I couldn't think of any reason not to be vaccinated. So I went to the district surgeon's clinic and got vaccinated, and the certificate, and two days later I was sick as a dog, and could not finish an essay I had to write for university. It would have been a lot easier to be vaccinated as a child, because then the adult booster would have had little or no effect. 

We went to Lesotho, and where there had previously just been a road and a bridge and a police post on the Lesotho side, there was now a sea of mud and a prefab hut with an immigration officer on the South African side. There were five of us in the car, and only two of us had passports -- they had only been a requirement for four days. The customs man said he would let us through if the guy on the Lesotho side did, but he would not let us back without vaccination certificates. So before going out on the town in Maseru we all went to the hospital for the unvaccinated to be vaccinated and get certificates. They had all been vaccinated as children, so it didn't make them sick, and the customs man was as good as his word -- he let us back without passports, but inspected all the vaccination certificates. 

And in subsequent travels, some places have also insisted on certificates of yellow fever inoculation as well. Those yellow certificates have been a requirement for international travel for most of my adult life, at least until smallpox was pronounced extinct. So I find it difficult to understand all the fuss about "vaccination passports" in social media. What planet have those people been living on?

I've gone into some detail to explain why:

  1. I've never understood the reasons for objecting to vaccination.
  2. I associate such objections with atheism
  3. It seems odd to me to accept some forms of medical treatment and not others. 

And I wonder if a lot of the fuss has been caused by the way social media work. 

Facebook, for example, wants to keep its users engaged and on their site. One way of doing this is by encouraging them to get involved in angry arguments. To get them involved in such arguments, give them an "Angry" symbol to tag posts with, and give posts that provoke the use of such symbols more exposure. Such posts are usually those that describe people who take the opposite point of view as stupid and or evil. You can report trolls on Facebook, but the biggest troll is Facebook itself, because its algorithms say, in effect, "Let;s you and him fight". And the bigger the fight and the more angry the reactions, the more eyes on ads, and the more profits for Facebook. 

We were vaccinated against Covid earlier this month. The thing was well organised and painless -- the Department of Health told us when and where to be vaccinated by SMS, and told us that we had been recorded as vaccinated within five minutes, also by SMS. But I'm not putting an "I've been Vaccinated" thingy on my profile pic on Facebook, or saying anything more about it there, other than a link to this post, because that seems calculated to promote a fight from which none but Facebook (or whatever other social media site is involved) can profit.

06 August 2021

Smugglers at Whistling Sands - a children's adventure story

Smugglers at Whistling Sands (Lou Elliott Mystery Adventures #1)Smugglers at Whistling Sands by George Chedzoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four children on a seaside holiday run unto a bunch of smugglers, and decide to spy on them to see what they are up to. Predictably, they get into trouble, and have an exciting and rather scary adventure.

Does it sound like Enid Blyton? That's because it is. Author George Chedzoy says he is trying to write something like Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" stories, because he thinks there are not enough such stories, and that is something I can applaud. As C.S. Lewis once famously said to his friend and fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien, "If we want more of the kind of stories we like, we shall have to write them ourselves."

At least one reviewer compared my children's books Of Wheels and Witches and The Enchanted Grove with the "Famous Five", and I'm not sure the comparison was appropriate. I'd perhaps have been happier if he had compared my books with those of Alan Garner, whose children's books I thought there weren't enough of, but in the case of Smugglers at Whistling Sands the comparison with the "Famous Five" is entirely appropriate. My books, like Alan Garner's, though also adventures of kids on holiday, have an element of fantasy, which one does not find in the "Famous Five", nor in this book.

Not only does Smugglers at Whistling Sands fit into the Enid Blyton genre, it is actually far better. George Chedzoy simply writes better than Enid Blyton. There are still some Blytonisms. There is food porn, but not very much, and it is played down. There are the obligatory exclamation marks, but two or three in a chapter rather than two or three in a paragraph, and they are used in more appropriate places. There is nothing of the "What a surprise!" kind of thing, which I find so annoying about Enid Blyton.

In Smugglers at Whistling Sands Louise Elliott, aged 12, rather lonely and neglected by her parents is bored in their holiday cottage on the North Wales coast, but makes friends with three siblings, Jack, David and Emily Johnson, who are staying in a nearby caravan park. David by chance overhears a conversation between two men about landing something valuable on an island. The children conclude that the men are smugglers, and decide to play detective and investigate. They sail to the island in Louise's boat, and find a briefcase full of American money, so their suspicions seem to be justified, and they decide to investigate further...

When I was a child I never cared much for the "Famous Five". I found them dull and predictable, and the characters were stereotyped, each having one characteristic that dominated everything. Of the works of Enid Blyton I far preferred her "of adventure" and "secret of" stories, such as The Mountain of Adventure , but i think I would have enjoyed this one very much when I was about 10 years old. So if you know a child who likes the "Famous Five", do them a favour and give them this -- it's far better.

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30 July 2021

The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third time I have read The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, which is set in Mexico in the 1930s, when the Roman Catholic Church was being persecuted by the revolutionary Mexican government. This story is about a priest on the run from the police, knowing that if he is caught he will face a firing squad. 

The previous time was nearly fifty years ago. Though I remembered the main plot outline, I had forgotten many details. This time I read it soon after reading two others by the same author, Stamboul Train, and The Quiet American, and I think this one is by far the best of his novels.

Perhaps because I was more familiar with it I noticed different things about it on the third reading. The first thing that struck me was the quality of the prose, which struck me as much better than the other two books, and also better than most other fiction I have read recently.

When I first read it at the age of 22 I was quite harsh in my judgement on the whisky priest protagonist. His last thoughts recorded in the book were an admission of failure.

He felt only an immense disappointment that he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to be a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew that at the end there was only one thing that counted -- to be a saint.

Any my main thought when I finished reading the book was "What a pity that he missed it, that he didn't show a little self-restraint, a little courage.

But reading it when older, I see it differently. We can only ever come to God empty-handed. And God can use even our failures. Everything that we do that is worthwhile is the Holy Spirit's work, and all that isn't is our interference. 

Also, since becoming Orthodox I tend to see things a bit differently. In the Orthodox Church the Sunday after Pentecost is All Saints Day. Being a saint is the effect of the Holy Spirit in the life of a person. We also, soon after Pentecost, celebrate the fathers of the various Ecumenical Councils. It is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that makes these things possible. 

And for Orthodox Christians, the primary sign of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit is not, as it is for Pentecostals, speaking in tongues, but the acquisition of a merciful heart. And this is what struck me most on this third reading of this book -- that the whisky priest, whatever his failings, acknowledged those failings, and acquired a merciful heart.

So at this reading I came to a different conclusion: he didn't feel like a saint, and just for that reason he was one.

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21 July 2021

On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle

I never much liked the published version of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but the original "scroll" version, described in this blog post, sounds much more interesting. I'll be on the lookout for a copy. On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle: On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle - May 2021:
In 2009, the unpublished 1951 version of Jack Kerouac's book, "On The Road" was released and gave many of the admirers of the 1957 version a chance to revisit the work and it's legacy.

Allen Ginsberg, the legendary Beat poet and close friend, felt that the 1957 version of the book had removed much of the "mad energy" and life of Kerouac's story. Which is true, the Original "Scroll" version, which was typed out on eight long sheets of drafting paper and taped together into a single scroll, differs in some important ways.

The 1957 version was toned down, particularly in sexual details like the sexuality of some of the characters and all of the people in the book were given fictitious names. Which given the straight laced atmosphere of the 50s era, wasn't surprising, and using the real names of living persons can make any book risky to publish.

The Original Scroll (like it's later published version) had an episodic approach to story telling, moving from one scene to another as it appeared in Kerouac's head, as opposed to events tied to a linear time frame. He spends time in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, yet describes very little of what he saw. Days or weeks are often covered with a single sentence, yet many pages are devoted to conversations with a friend or friends, and if he's waiting for money to come via mail (or wages on payday), he'll just skip over to it's arrival and then the narrative becomes full again.

The first book of Jack Kerouac's that I read, back in 1960, was The Dharma Bums, and I liked it a lot better than On the Road and indeed most of his other books. When I first heard of Jack Kerouac, he was presented to me as a pilgrim of the Absolute, and a symbol of a counterculture. I could find those easily in The Dharma Bums, but not so easily in On the Road. But perhaps reading the original scroll version will give a different view.

16 July 2021

New meanings for old words: Based

I knew what "based on" meant, but then I started seeing some strange usage of "based" on social media. People started talking about things being "based" off, or just "based", and I didn't know what they were talking about. 

I asked on the question & answer site Quora, but no one there was able to tell me. I then asked on Twitter, and Duncan Reyburn kindly gave me the answer:

'Based' is almost equal to Heidegger's notion of authenticity. It's a complement[aic], usually meaning something like 'courageous or not caring what others think'. The opposite of 'based' is 'cringe'. 'Based off' (usually with an 'of') at the end is just bad English for 'based on'.

So I post this in case anyone else was wondering what these expressions meant. 

"Based" looks as though it might be quite a useful word, but I'm not sure about "cringe". Cringe is what I do when someone utters opinions that are not based. Perhaps the older "politically correct" is more appropriate there -- uttering opinions because you think it is politic to do so because you fear the power of those who hold them. But yes, that is cringing too. 

"Based off" is somewhat different. I did know the meaning of "based off", it's just that people seemed to be using it in contexts where it made no sense. Something could, for example, be "based off the coast of Italy", meaning that it was based on an offshire Island somewhere. Back in the 1960s there were pirate radio stations based off the coast of Britain, on ships out at sea. In those contexts the usage makes sense, but in the ways I have seen it used in social media recently it did not. Unless "off" is the new "on" -- "Turn off the light -- it's too dark to see in here.". 



02 July 2021

She plays with the darkness

She Plays with the Darkness

She Plays with the Darkness by Zakes Mda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Zakes Mda tells the truth about southern Africa, in that he gives a good picture of life and what makes people tick in various parts of the subcontinent; in this case, Lesotho. People sometimes distinguish between "character-driven" and "plot-driven" novels, and this one is definitely character driven.

The protagonists are the ambitious materialistic Radisene, who is always pursuing get-rich-quick schemes, and his mystical rather other-worldly sister Dikosha. They grew up in the mountain village of Ha Samane, and Zakes Mda paints a picture of village life which one cannot help but feel is authentic (Mda, though born in South Africa, grew up in such a village in Lesotho when his parents became political refugees). Like most small rural communities, Ha Samane thrives on gossip, and everyone knows everyone's business, with the exception of Radisene, who moves to the capital Maseru as soon as he leaves school. And Dikosha, who lives in a world of her own, with people of the past.

There are other memorable characters too. There is Sorry My Darlie, the professional soccer player who incites Radisene's envy and ambition with his affluent lifestyle, but he is also consumed by a hopeless unrequited love for Dikosha. There is the policeman, Trooper Motsohi, whose fortunes rise and fall usually in opposite cycles to Radisene, and also with the political changes in Lesotho, which are punctuated by coups. So when Trooper Motsohi is in the ascendant, Radisene's fortunes decline, but when the wheel turns their positions are reversed, and as the story progressed I was constantly reminded of the Tarot card of the Wheel of Fortune, which seemed to apply to the lives of many of the characters.

I remember the 1970 coup in Lesotho, when Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan, on discovering that he had lost an election, got the army to seize power and keep him in power. At the time we thought it was Greek-style democracy, as a group of colonels had seized power in Greece three years earlier in similar circumstances. This was featured in the film Z. A couple of years later the same thing happened in Chile. There was a saying, "Where there's a coup, there's a Colonel" and we used to speak of "Colonelissimo in Excelsis Leabua Jonathan". But what we didn't realise at the time was the extent of repression of the the ordinary citizens of Lesotho, which Zakes Mda brings out in his book.

It is a rather sad book, as we follow the lives and fortunes (and misfortunes) of the main characters, but also there is the feeling of life going on, seed-time and harvest, births and funerals, continue as people appear on the scene and depart.

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01 July 2021

Puck, plague and history

King Of Shadows

King Of Shadows by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A surprisingly moving story about an orphan boy actor who is magically transported 400 years back from the 20th century to the original Globe theatre, where he performs in A Midsummer Night's Dream which he had been rehearsing for in his own time) and meets William Shakespeare himself.

This was the third book by Susan Cooper I'd read in the last couple of months, and I liked it a lot better than her The Dark is Rising. It invites comparison with another book I read not so long ago -- Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill -- see my review here.  

Both books feature Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in both books children are plucked out of their own time into the past and discover something of past history. But I think Susan Cooper tells a better story, and tells it better than Kipling. I think Kipling's Kim is far better than his Puck of Pook's Hill, and have read that several times, but Kim is a spy story and a Bildungsroman, not fantasy.

King of Shadows also features bubonic plague, and reminded me of another historical fantasy book that featured that, which seemed appropriate reading for our times of quarantine. For more on that, and other plague-time reading, see Physical distance and social proximity in a time of plague.

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21 June 2021

American culture through South African eyes

Cion (Toloki #2)

Cion by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book of Zakes Mda that I read was Ways of Dying, featuring Toloki, who decides to be a professional mourner, and appears again as the protagonist in this book. But I read it 20 years ago, so I can't remember much of it, and perhaps I need to read it again to understand this one.

In Cion Toloki has achieved some success in his career as a professional mourner in Johannesburg and is touring the world to study professional mourners in various cultures. He does this at the instigation of the mysterious sciolist, who I cannot remember from the first book at all. 

St Chad's College, Durham
I would like to know more, because the first place the sciolist sent Toloki to was Durham in England -- more specifically to Durham Cathedral, to the tombs of St Cuthbert and St Bede. And the sciolist himself appears to be connected with St Chad's College, just over the road from the cathedral. I am particularly interested in that because I spent two years studying at St Chad's College, one of them in a room with a view of the chapel of Nine Altars at the Cathedral, and the other with a view looking the opposite way over the River Wear and Kingsgate Bridge, and the People's Gin Palace, officially known as Dunelm House, now threatened with demolition after 60 years, whereas the cathedral has stood for about 900, all of which can be seen in the picture (taken from the tower of Durham Cathedral). So I really would like to know more about the sciolist.

In this book, however, Toloki spends only a short time in Durham, apparently as a tourist, but stays for more than a year in the small hamlet of Kilvert in south-eastern Ohio, where he spends much of the time with the Quigley family, Mahlon and Ruth, and their grown-up children Obed and Orpah. And the rest of the book is about a South African's attempts to make sense of the contradictions of American culture as shown in the microcosm of one family.

There are excursions into the family's past where some ancestors had been slaves in neighbouring Virginia, and it tells the story of the escape of two of them across the Ohio River, which is the River Jordan in the mythology of the slaves. And perhaps by some strange coincidence I had recently read and reviewed Seven Days to Freedom by John Davies. who has quite a bit to say about the symbolism of the River Jordan and the Ohio River in relation to slavery and freedom.
The message of the Bible has been transmitted across the centuries, and its symbols carry a rich cargo of meaning. It tells us that there is a ‘Red Sea’ for us to cross out of our present condition, and a ‘Jordan’ for us to cross into a new world. ‘Jordan’ remains still a boundary in the Middle East – a physical, social, and political symbol of the most intransigent of the world’s troubles. But also, ‘Jordan’ is, for many of us, the boundary which we look forward to crossing when we die. But also again, the original singers of songs like ‘Deep River, my home is over Jordan’, were slaves in the southern states of the USA, yearning for an escaperoute. For them ‘Jordan’ was the Ohio, the boundary between the southern slave-owning states and the free.

Reading Zakes Mda's book so soon after reading that made both seem more real. Part of the mythology of the slaves, and their descendants, involves the making of quilts, which, according to family legend tell the story of escaping from slavery.

In Ohio, the family ends up being a representative mix of most of the ethnic groups that make up the USA -- Shawnee, Cherokee, slaves of African descent, Irish and various "Caucasians", described by Toloki with a wry sense of humour, yet he grows to love them for all their foibles and idiosyncrasies, and they grow to love him with all his.

This is not my favourite book by Zakes Mda, perhaps because the cultural setting is so unfamiliar to me. I have spent only two weeks in the USA, and saw only a small part of it. Mda has spent much longer, and presumabably knows it better. What I do know, however, is that his books set in southern Africa, where he grew up, books like The Madonna of Excelsior and Black Diamond tell the truth about South Africa. They tell it like it is, and was. And so I suspect that his observations on American culture and American history in this book are spot on too, and that what he writes about slavery and slave life are substantially accurate.

Much of the book is written in the present tense, which I found a little strange, and I'd be interested in reading the reactions of Americans to this book, especially those who live, or have lived, in Ohio and Virginia.

On a more personal note, which doesn't really belong in the GoodReads review, is that I compared the experience of Toloki in a strange culture with my own, and with a chapter of a book I have been editing. 

The book chapter is about the reverse -- people of African descent in the New World who emigrated to Africa, mainly to places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, and whose attitudes to the local African people tended to be very similar to that of European settlers in Africa. 

When I went to England to study, I left in haste, because a security policeman wanted to give me a banning order which would have prevented my going overseas to study. With 8 months to wait before the term at St Chad's College started, I worked as a bus driver in London, and lodged with a landlady from Sierra Leone for seven months. But unlike Toloki, I was rather shy and retiring, and only really spoke to the landlady, Mrs Williams, when I paid the rent each week. Even after seeing them in church one Sunday, at St Leonard's Church in Streatham, I didn't speak to them much. I was too shy even to ask how the hot water system in the bathroom worked. Only towards the end of my stay did I begin to have actual conversations with the daughter, who was finishing high school and planning to go to university, and we talked about subjects we studied and things like that. 

So reading about Toloki made me think that I had missed really getting to know the family I was staying with, and the only real human contact I had was when I crossed London to visit other people I had known in South Africa. Toloki's relationship with the family he stayed with had its ups and downs, but in the end it seems that on balance both he and they benefited.

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13 June 2021

The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a reviewer of one of my books, Of Wheels and Witches, compared it with this one, and suggested that it might have been influenced by the The Dark is Rising sequence, I thought I'd better read it. So I read Over Sea, Under Stone which I enjoyed a lot, and now have read this one, which I didn't enjoy quite so much, and in writing this I'm trying to work out why I gave the first book 5 stars, and this one only 4.

There is little to link the two books. Over Sea, under Stone was set in Cornwall, this one is set in Buckinghamshire, with a completely different set of characters. Will Stanton is the youngest of a family of nine children, and discovers , on the day before his 11th birthday, that he is an "Old One" and that he has a quest to perform, to collect six signs made of different materials.


He is helped in this by a more experienced Old One, Merryman Lyon, who is the only character who seems to have been in Over Sea, Under Stone, and another family who live on a nearby farm, whom he discovers are also Old Ones, and he is hindered in his task by a couple of characters called The Walker and The Rider.

*** Possible spoiler alert -- if you haven't read this book, and want to, you might want to stop reading at this point, as it has possible plot spoilers ***

The book never explains who the Old Ones are, but we are told that they have a lot of superpowers not accessible to ordinary people, and the young/old Will Stanton learns how to use these powers by instantly absorbing a magic book. And this is, I think, why I liked this story less than Over Sea, Under Stone. The children in that book, unlike Will Stanton, are ordinary children with no superpowers. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, in his book Orthodoxy:

...oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.
Will Stanton, however
... wondered how to explain to an elder brother that an eleven-year-old was no longer quite an eleven-year-old, but a creature subtly different from the human race, fighting for its survival

That makes Will Stanton seem like something out of The Midwich Cuckoos other than being on the side of the good guys. It cuts him off from normal human relations with his family, but not for normal human reasons, but rather for inhuman ones.

The reviewer of my book also detected the influence of Charles Williams, whose novels I have read, and whose influence I freely acknowledge. Interestingly enough The Dark is Rising has several scenes which are reminiscent of Charles Williams's novel The Greater Trumps. In both books the family goes to church on Christmas day for Anglican Mattins, and on the way home rescue a homeless wanderer from a snowstorm which turns into a supernatural blizzard. The difference is that in The Greater Trumps the characters are normal human beings, though they do have access to magical objects. In The Dark is Rising, however, there is a deus ex machina in almost every chapter, and sometimes more than one.

At one point Will Stanton does face a moral choice where his decision could make a difference, when the bad guys have kidnapped his sister Mary, and they threaten to kill her if he does not hand over the signs he has gathered. He refusesw, but Mary is in no real danger, because she is rescued by a deus ex machina.

I did enjoy reading the book, but I don't think it was as good as the first one.

And then, going beyond simply reviewing this book, I come to the comparison with my own. If there were some things I didn't much like about this book, how did I do it differently (or try to -- it is for the reader to judge whether I succeeded) in my books?

In my children's book Of Wheels and Witches and its sequel The Enchanted Grove the child characters are normal human beings, with no superpowers. Some of their opponents are human, and some have magical or supernatural powers, so there is a fantasy element in the books, but I have tried to give the children moral agency, so that their choices do make a difference, and do have consequences, some of which could be foreseen and others not. But as I said, it's up to the reader to judge how well I succeeded.

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30 May 2021

The Madonna of Excelsior

The Madonna Of Excelsior

The Madonna Of Excelsior by Zakes Mda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel that has a little bit of everything, almost -- a sex scandal, sibling rivalry, political chicanery, and believable characters. And so much of it is true, I read it in the newspaper 50 years ago.

It is set in a real small town in the Free State province of South Africa, and is based on real events, so the usual disclaimer about the characters not resembling any real persons, living or dead, is somewhat differently worded. Though the events are a matter of public record, the characters are fictitious. I've written a few books set in a small South African town, but having lived in a small town myself, I didn't dare to use a  real town as the setting, but Zakes Mda boldly does so, and his book is all the more realistic as a result.

But the fictitious characters do resemble real people. And the book gives a microcosm of South Africa in the last three decades of the 20th century. Excelsior is a real town, and it really was rocked by a sex scandal in the early 1970s. The neighbouring towns, mentioned in the book, are real and I have been to, or through some of them.

And at least one of the characters is real, Father Frans Claerhout, a Roman Catholic and artist who lived at Tweespruit just south of Excelsior, and descriptions of whose paintings at the beginning of each chapter form a linking motif for the story.

Popi Pule has two half-brothers; one, Viliki Pule, is black, and the other, Tjaart Cronje, is white, and all three were born in apartheid South Africa, much of whose legislation was calculated to prevent precisely those kinds of relationships. Viliki and Puke's mother Niki had been Tjaart's nanny when he was small, and she is the eponymous Madonna of Excelsior, and had been a model for some of Father Frans Claerhout's paintings.

People sometimes ask, what was South Africa like during apartheid, and during and after the end of apartheid, and in this book Zakes Mda nails it. He tells it like it is, and was. He has written several books set in South Africa, and each of the ones I've read gives an accurate picture of some or other aspect of South African life. There are links to some of my reviews of them here,

If but someone from another country was coming to South Africa from another country, and wanted an introduction to South African life, and history, and social relations, this is the book I would recommend to them. Since it is fiction, it doesn't have all the facts, but it does tell the truth about South Africa, the unvarnished truth. If you want to know what South Africa is really like, read this book!

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26 May 2021

The Quiet American

The Quiet American

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is one of Graham Greene's best books. I find Graham Greene a bit like Stephen Kind -- I like some of his books a lot, and others I don't like much at all. This is definitely one that I liked.

Thomas Fowler is a reporter for a British newspaper, reporting on the French colonial war in Vietnam when the Americans are just beginning to get involved. One of the new people at the American embassy, Pyle, tries to befriend Fowler, and falls in love with his girlfriend, Phuong, whom he steals, ever so politely. 

Fowler tries to be neutral in his reporting, and to remain uninvolved, but Pyle's role causes him to reexamine his approach, and but he is never sure whether his actions are due to Pyle's political role or his own jealousy. 

Perhaps one reason that the book appealed to me so much is that it reminded me of my time in Namibia in the early 1970s. Namibia was then in a colonial situation, under South African rule, as Vietnam had been under France 15 years earlier, and I was, like the protagonist in The Quiet American, a journalist. And something Greene wrote illuminated a difference that I was aware of, but fund difficult to describe.

In December 1971 there was a big strike of Ovambo contract workers in what was then known as South West Africa. One of the interesting differences in the approach to journalism came on the second day of the strike, Tuesday 14th December 1971. My friend David de Beer and I worked for the local Anglican Church, and I also worked on the local paper, and we were also stringers ("correspondents") for the Argus Africa News service, which supplied most of the South African evening newspapers. But the strike was big news, so some of the newspapers sent their own in-house reporters to cover it, and one of them was Alan Hardy of The Star of Johannesburg.

Pastor Maasdorp of the Lutheran Church had said that one of their evangelists had been arrested in the Ovambo compound, and that Pastor Haufiku was busy trying to bail him out. Alan Hardy immediately phoned Brigadier Brandt, the local police chief, who denied that there had been any arrests. Dave and I went out to see Pastor Haufiku to check up, and he confirmed it, and said he would take us to see the evangelist, Thomas Nalupi. And Thomas Nalupi showed us his admission of guilt receipt.

This ties up with an interesting passage in The Quiet American, where the protagonist, the journalist Thomas Fowler says:

It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action.

Alan Hardy was a reporter, Dave de Beer and I were correspondents. And that describes the difference between us. To confirm a report that there had been arrests, the reporter asked the chief of police. That would never have occurred to us correspondents. For us the convincing evidence was the admission of guilt receipt.

There was more, perhaps. Alan Hardy was a bit older than us, but not by much. But he belonged to a different generation. We belonged to the 1968 generation. It had been, for both Dave and me, our last year as full-time students, and that was the year of student power, which had been immediately preceded by the year of flower power. But both hippie flower power and student power shared a distrust of authority. I had even developed a theological rationale for it. One of the slogans was "Don't trust anyone over 30," and I had just passed my 30th birthday, though I thought the least trustworthy age was between 40 and 60, when people were at the most powerful stages of their careers and were most likely to be embedded in and thus wedded to the System.

Of course the trouble with us was that we seldom adhered to the "audi alteram partem" rule, but then neither did the establishment reporters. They put the point of view of the establishment, businessmen, employers, government officials, whereas we reported what we heard from the underside -- the strikers and ordinary workers and those who ministered to them. And Graham Greene in this book illustrated the difference very clearly. 

And perhaps even more clearly he showed the shallowness and folly of much American foreign policy. Pyle, the eponymous "quiet American", was a fan or a particular (fictional) foreign policy wonk called York Harding. And at one point Dave de Beer met just such an American foreign policy wonk by the name of George Kennan, who struck Dave as incredibly naive. Kennan talked as though all he had to do was press some magic button in the depths of the Pentagon and all Namibia's problems would be instantly solved. 

I have sometimes wondered since then whether George Kennan was playing some devious game, and trying to appear more naive than he actually was, but since reading Graham Greene's book I wonder if he wasn't the model for York Harding.

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